Conservatives Grapple With Gay Wedding Rite

Rabbis Create Traditional Service, But Some Couples Balk

Tying the Knot: Friends and relatives of Gregg Drinkwater and David Shneer gather around their chuppah, each offering one of the seven Jewish wedding blessings. Cantor Sam Radwine officiated at the wedding in 1996.
courtesy of Gregg Drinkwater
Tying the Knot: Friends and relatives of Gregg Drinkwater and David Shneer gather around their chuppah, each offering one of the seven Jewish wedding blessings. Cantor Sam Radwine officiated at the wedding in 1996.

By Naomi Zeveloff

Published November 28, 2011, issue of December 02, 2011.
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Having recognized gay rights with their 2006 acceptance of gay unions, Conservative rabbis are now wrestling with the issue of gay rites.

The recent efforts of three leading rabbis to construct a kosher wedding ceremony for same-sex couples hews closely to the traditional Jewish heterosexual ceremony, in an effort, they say, to ensure that same-sex couples suffer no inequality in the sacred standards governing their vows. But these efforts, ironically, are now drawing criticism from some activists for replicating aspects of the Jewish wedding rite that they consider sexist.

“In a way it’s a shame, there is an opportunity for a less problematic, more contemporary liturgy,” said Jay Michaelson, founding director of Nehirim, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jewish group. (Michaelson is also a Forward contributing editor.)

Rabbi Jill Hammer, right, with her wife, Shoshana Jedwab, at their wedding.
courtesy of jill hammer
Rabbi Jill Hammer, right, with her wife, Shoshana Jedwab, at their wedding.

What’s more important than parity between same-sex and heterosexual ceremonies, critics say, is equality between partners. While traditional Jewish marital rites — or kiddushin — describe the man as the owner of his wife, some gay and lesbian Jews say they want to avoid this hierarchical language in favor of an egalitarian template.

The trio of rabbis leading the effort to devise a sacred structure for same-sex wedding vows that will pass muster as kiddushin are Elliot Dorff, a professor of Jewish theology at American Jewish University; Daniel Nevins, Dean of the rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary; and Avram Reisner, head of the Chevrei Tzedek Congregation in Baltimore. The same three rabbis also authored an influential ruling in 2006 that welcomed gays into the Movement. At a meeting on November 16, the rabbis presented their proposal for same-sex marriage and divorce rites to the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly, Conservative Judaism’s official rabbinical association.

Because the document is still in draft form — it will likely be voted on in June 2012 — the rabbis declined to share it with the Forward. But the rabbis, describing the marriage template in broad terms, said that it was modeled on the traditional ceremony, taking place under a canopy, with an exchange of rings and a recitation of the traditional seven blessings, among other rites. The main discrepancy is that the gendered language has been changed.

According to Reisner, the rabbis felt that if they strayed too far from traditional marriage in their proposal to the committee, they would be seen as offering gay and lesbian Jews a ceremony that was both separate and unequal. “The community would not feel warmly if they felt they were being offered some radically different thing,” he said.


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